This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
We think of the heart as more than just a vital organ. It is one of the vital organs, but like many ancient cultures, including ancient Hebrew culture, our culture thinks of the heart as the governing center of our lives. The use of heart in these cases includes all that the human being is: the psyche, the intellect, the physique, really the personality and everything about who we are as individuals, are thought of as our “heart”. We, like the writers of the Gospels, consider the heart as the center of the will. This gives rise to sayings like, “He has a lot of heart.”; meaning “He has a strong will”. Or declaring, “You scared the heart out of me.” This hyperbole means that everything about me was scared and so scared that there was nothing left of me because my heart was not with me anymore.
After His upbraiding of the Pharisees for elevating their traditions over God’s commandments, Jesus teaches the crowd, …from within, out of the heart of man, come all the notorious sins that defile a man. Jesus is using “heart” in the same way as we still use it. It describes who the person is. There are times in the New Testament when heart means the organ of the body that pumps blood throughout the body. Living, moving blood is a necessity for life and if the heart is pumping blood throughout the body, it is, in a sense, pumping life throughout the human. Usually, though, heart is used, as it is today in Mark’s Gospel, to mean who the person really is. The seat, or heart, of the person produces the true character of a person, but conceals it.
This description of the heart as the center of our inner life is used by Jesus when He quotes Isaiah the Prophet to describe the hypocritical Pharisees. Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures to the Pharisees and then interprets the scriptures for them. This is a bold on Jesus’ part. Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart if far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Hear the interpretation, You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. Their hearts, who they really are, in the practice of their religion has become disordered. They have put the practice of simple traditions over keeping the commandment first in their hearts. The result is ill-will, hypocrisy, and defilement. Who they are in their heart, is not pretty.
In today’s Gospel we find that Jesus is confronting the Pharisees for the first time in His earthly ministry and He is not complimentary. It seems that they have elevated certain practices and customs and forgotten the reason for them. Jesus is not saying that the customs are bad, or that they should not keep them, but He is saying that they ought to recall the reason behind them. Let’s face it, Jesus maintains and promotes traditions.
If we read the New Testament Jesus keeps some of the religious practices and traditions. In places in the New Testament He also breaks some of the traditions and customs. We find that He certainly kept practices like daily prayer at the synagogue. He read Scripture according to a particular order. He maintained and blessed the practice of bringing tithes to the temple. In other places, though, He broke the practice of talking to women in public, especially when they were alone. He healed on the Sabbath. In the Gospel for today, He allowed His disciples to eat without washing their hands. Sometimes He kept the tradition very faithfully and other times He broke with religious tradition. The point is that we should know and practice the tradition, keeping in mind that the true practice has to come from the mind, the heart and the soul.
Being part of a community, that is defined by a tradition, has a purpose and in the case of the Christian religion the purpose is to save. The acts that are involved in keeping a tradition are not in themselves salvific. They cannot save, but the teaching that comes from God and His redemptive acts can. It is the acts that God has done to create the community and define it that save. We take part in those redemptive acts by participating in the community. Our community is the Church.
When Jesus says in the Gospel, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, (He is actually quoting Isaiah, notice that He uses His tradition for His teaching) He is really saying one must take the goodness of the law on their hearts. The Pharisees are missing the point. They are not looking at the heart and soul of their traditions. The traditions the Jews kept of washing vessels, and hands, and tables were meant to point to much larger ideas and beliefs. They were using these lesser traditions as a barometer of holiness, not as a sign of their obedience to God. Jesus gets angry with them for the first time. And this is also the first time He confronts them on the topic of religion. He sees them going through all the motions with nothing behind the motions. They are so concerned with keeping the traditions created by men, that they lose sight of their real purpose of loving God and living in obedience to Him. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And He said unto them, full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition…(you) make the Word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
Jesus wants the Pharisees to realize that they are not going to the heart and soul of the matter. They are not concerning themselves with their own hearts and their own souls. That is the real reason for following a tradition. Notice, Jesus does not reject tradition. He condemns the Pharisees’ misuse of their tradition. They were using their own standards, their own code, to determine for themselves whether or not they were faithful to the commandments of God. They were living under their own rules to suit themselves, and forgetting that there is a larger and more important reason for their traditions, that reason must receive all the attention.
We cannot forget that we live under the commandments of God, too, and that is a very good thing. We cannot be left to our own devices. When we are left to depend on ourselves we only measure our faithfulness in relation to ourselves and become modern-day Pharisees. God loves us so much that He gave us the law. He wants us to know how far we are away from him. Thank God that in His mercy He gave us the law so that we know the right and true way in which to love Him and others. Thank God that He also gave us His Son so that we can receive the strength and love we need to follow the commandments. Jesus is concerned for your soul. He loves your soul and wants it to be on the path to truth and goodness. That is why He corrects the Pharisees. True religion is concerned with saving souls. Jesus Christ is truth and He is concerned with our souls.
It is by following tradition that we learn what is expected of us. Following a Christian tradition means that we bring ourselves under the authority of Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church. It is not oppressive, or stifling, or stress producing. Following Jesus Christ and the tradition of His Church is the cure for our souls. We follow Jesus Christ not as the Pharisees followed the tradition they created, but we follow Jesus Christ because He guides us along the path to holiness in this life and delivers us into the Kingdom of God in the next life.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.